Clavius has to leave and attend to his wife. He is having dinner with the Proconsul later. He tells Pompeii he will check in this evening. “Son, you need to get some rest too,” he says. “By Jupiter!” Trajan says, grabbing his hair. “What is it?” Clavius says, wide-eyed. “I forgot about Lucilla’s birthday…” Trajan says, but before he finishes that thought, she walks in. Not one to show outward signs of emotion, she keeps her composure despite being frantic about Trajan’s condition.
She brushes his hair aside and kisses him before she takes him by the arm and leads him out into the hallway. Trajan bids Clavius and Pompeii goodbye. Lucilla’s presence brightens up the gloom of the hospital. Trajan desires to ask her thoughts of the fantastic tale, but he is obliged by unspoken duty to remain quiet.
The tale of Mars is ever before him. The implication that Martians colonized Earth and constructed man... Humans would merely be genetic offspring of a mother race. It goes against all teachings of evolution and religion. That alone would send the world into a total meltdown. Perhaps they were right to keep it hidden. If Gaius is part of this or knew something, it will get out and whoever supplied the Crystal Blue may want him silenced. I have to trust somebody. Trajan looks at Lucilla.
“Tell me about it?” she whispers.
Trajan, vexed by Lucilla’s gentleness, can’t seem to utter a word. His voice cracks as he tries to speak. Lucilla puts her finger to his lips.
“Shh. Let’s get out of here.”
Trajan breathes deeply as they walk towards the door out of the hospital, regaining his composure. She turns to him with a smile, a welcome sight in the days’ sorrow.
“Remember, you promised to take me out.”
“It’s so late and I’m tired. Can’t we go home?”
“Oh no, you’re not going to back out on me. I’ve been looking forward to this all week,” says Lucilla. “Besides, you owe me for making the gladiator team, don’t you?”
Trajan grins for the first time in hours. He planned this as a surprise to soften the blow if he got picked for the team, but that is moot compared to the rest of the day’s events. He never could keep anything from her. At least he did not have to worry about telling her. He nods, and they head out into the night.
The clock reads two a.m. in the hallway outside Gaius’s room. The security guards have found chairs and are looking through magazines as they man their posts. Pompeii, disheveled, shuffles down the hall towards them. They glance up at his approach and stand to attention. He bids them keep their seats and walks in to see his son.
Gaius lies with an oxygen tube coming out of his mouth, weak and vulnerable. Pompeii is gaunt, the once proud man now overwrought with remorse. “Have I brought this on you?” Like wandering in the forest on a moonless night, he gropes in the dark for answers. His mind drifts back towards Mars and the encounter with Garelle, especially the parts he and Clavius left out of their account to Trajan.
In the underground chamber, Garelle faces Pompeii and Clavius when a sudden light bursts through the swirling mass of Crystal Blue.
“No! This can’t be!” Garelle says.
Pompeii and Clavius back away as the light glows brighter and the screams of million voices all at once fills the chamber. Pompeii senses the presence of something that is alive. A voice shouts to them to pull the handle of a mechanism on the wall. Thick lines of conduit lead from the mechanism’s shell to the core of generators supplying its energy. “Won’t that destroy the planet?” Pompeii shouts above the ethereal wailing. Neither he nor Clavius see Garelle. They look at one another deciding whether to obey the horrible voices. “What about Earth? With the loss of Mars, the gravitational rotation of the planets would be altered, causing unforeseen climate changes,” Clavius says.
“That’s a question for scientists and theoreticians, not foot soldiers.” Pompeii starts for the lever, but the noise grows ever louder, like a dagger being plunged into their eardrums of both men. They clasp their hands tight over their ears, screaming in agony. Crystal Blue fills the room, the points of light impacting them both. Pummeled from every direction, they are driven to their knees. That’s the last thing Pompeii remembers before waking up in the Martian sand, Clavius collapsed at his side. As Pompeii rises from the sand, he sees the smoking crater where the rock face and underground structure stood. He walks over to the edge and looks down into the yawning pit, nearly a mile deep and over a mile in diameter. A mass that resembles tar clings to the sides of crater and bubbles in the bottom.
What followed is black in Pompeii’s memory, and he doubts the veracity of what he can recall, knowing that it has intermingled with dreams and nightmares over the decades since. After collapsing back to the sand, everything was a blur of other Romans, colonists, and something about water. He and Clavius discussed revealing their findings when they were recovered, but fear compelled them to silence.
He tried to assure himself that the menace was gone. What had they seen? Was any part of the story even real? Memories always distort facts. Their silence may have blinded them to a lurking threat that neither one of them could have known. The nightmares about those times had returned in the past weeks. They had caused him many sleepless nights. Antonia found him wandering naked in the gardens outside their house in the dark morning hours. When she attempted to wake him she said all he would say is “Can you hear them?” Over and over again he had remained in this trancelike condition for almost an hour. She had become frantic and awakened Gaius to help. When his son had arrived, Pompeii was already alert and irritable, screaming for his clothes. He did not tell of the visions of Martian creatures all around him trying to communicate to him. He dismissed it as a bad dream. Suspecting he might be losing his mind, he’d went to a psychiatrist and told him in confidence of the episode. He threatened the doctor with jail time on a moon penal colony.
Pompeii was certain that nothing would slip from the psychiatrist that should not, but he was overwhelmed with dread, so tired he could barely stand. Looking around, he sees a lounge chair. It is a recliner made of foam and fake leather, not especially comfortable, but clean enough for relatives of the sick who feel they must spend the night in hospital. He used to think this was a useless endeavor. What could they do, not being doctors? Better for them to go home, rest and not add to the problem. The patient is in good hands and safer here, but now he understands: it is more than that. To reassure themselves that love and compassion are more than mere words, able to give life and somehow pass that on to the sick. He read that somewhere that a study showed patients recovered faster when someone they loved was near, even if the patient was not conscious. He dismissed it as poppycock, from the pen of an individual who felt guilty for not being there when the end was close, an attempt to recapture an emotion flippantly taken for granted over a lifetime. Decades of being a soldier and statesman had given him a tough veneer and jaded.
He looks at Gaius. He was part of his son’s childhood, but did he really know him? Why is it, he wonders, we don’t ever truly reflect on our actions till tragedy happens? The affection he bestowed on his son had no true meaning, no sincerity. He sits, weeping, and calls to the Gods for his baby to be alright. He had never been to the temples. The Gods were to him mere inventions of an infant humanity to offer explanations for what scientists could not. He thought the public filled with fools, living in blind ignorance, praying to nothing more than the wind. All the ceremonies and sacrifice made little sense. He was a proponent of knowledge as the ultimate religion, but there is something to this moment of outcry. Science indicates that we live on one plain of existence, but that there could be thousands of different dimensions we do not as yet comprehend, all coexisting simultaneously. Death is a transition from this world to the next. While mortal beings cannot traverse between plains, the dead can. Maybe it is a natural part of evolution and flesh and blood were only a shell to incubate the soul until it was time to move on. That is assuming what scientists say is true. How Pompeii wants it to be so.
He drops to his knees beside the bed and clasps his hands together, trying to find the words. He stutters and shakes, his voice cracks with guilt, choking back the tears. Antonia had uttered the sacred prayers at the altar in their home every day but he had paid no attention to them. He struggled to remember her recitations. Cursing himself, he tries to calm down. By some miracle the words flow from his mouth.
“Blessed ancestors, hear my plea. Our son has crossed into the darkness. Bring him back into the light. Our...” He pauses. “...my sins have brought you dishonor. By my deceit, I have caused a great sorrow to befall our Empire. Take my soul so I can reach Gaius and return him to the land of the living.”
Satisfied that he communicated his intentions, he stands. The tears have stopped, there is now a look of resolve. He touches Gaius’s face with the back of his hand, then bends and kisses his forehead.
“I shall find you, son, and bring you home. But first, I must be sure that what I may have brought back from Mars in my own body is destroyed. Not one cell of my body can remain to cause any more damage or harm.”
Turning, Pompeii walks out into the hallway, resolved to what he is about to undertake, certain it has to be done. Pompeii is a man of duty, and now only one remains. A final act that he hopes will avert catastrophe for all the Earth. Stopping outside, he gives instructions to the Praetorians.
“Keep an eye on my wife and son. I have some urgent business to attend to. I have been called back to the Office of the Interior. Security matters. You are doing me and the empire a great service.” The two bullish looking guards are grateful for the acknowledgment from such a high ranking official.
“I too was once a soldier, and I would love to regale you with my many experiences. I was more of a man in my youth.”
“I respectfully disagree, sir. You were my inspiration to join the service. Pompeii the Great is a legend still. Your exploits colonizing the moon and your journeys to Mars are the stuff of legend,” says one of the guards.
“You walked the walk and talked the talk,” states another.
“Kind words, gentlemen, but I must be on my way,” he replies in leaving.
How he would miss the company of such fine men, as well as that of Gaius, his only son, and Trajan, whom he regarded as a son. Pompeii’s adventures filled him with pride in the past, but now he has become old in one night. He wants to leave the Empire as secure as he’s always strived for. He may not be young and able to yield a sword but he can do this. He must. The guards admire him as a man still in command as he strides to the elevator.
Pompeii pauses at the waiting room window and looks in at his wife. He remembers the first time he saw her at the Centurions Ball fifty-five years before. He was dressed in his finest armor, polished white with the Roman Eagle in gold relief across the breastplate. Antonia wore a green silk dress with her hair in a traditional curl bouffant clasp in a silver head braid. The earring hoops she had been wearing were huge. he commented that they were as big as dish plates. She had not liked that too well. The thought brings a smile to his face. He cannot not linger, as to do so would cause him to change his mind and he could not do that. He presses the door button and it swings open. Stepping in, the automated voice asks him his destination. He waits till it closes so nobody will hear him. “Take me to the basement,” he says.
Pompeii stares straight ahead, determined. A million voices go off in his brain as he has been thrust into a concert with thousands of screaming fans. It is paralyzing. He brings his hands to his ears. “Stop it! ” The automated voice of the elevator counts down the floors. “Twenty, ten, five…” The elevator dings at the sub-basement. The door opens and he shakes his head out of his fugue. The cries cease.
He is three stories below street, the bowels of the hospital. Nobody comes here except for maintenance. It is also home to the hospital incinerator. Thousands of different shoots feed into it for quick, easy disposal of hazardous waste. The incinerator gives off tremendous heat. Pompeii drips with perspiration. Stepping onto the platform, he reaches up to a wall control panel and punches the “on” button. The blast portals open wide and the conveyor rolls. In his last moments he watches the impassive rollers start up. It is a simple matter: all he has to do is to lie down. The oven burns at a blistering five thousand degrees, almost as hot as the sun, able to kill any organisms, viruses or bacteria. He could not think about it anymore. Nobody must know his actions. Maybe Clavius will figure it out. He wishes for a moment he had left a note describing his suspicions about a Martian virus. Pompeii jumps onto the conveyor. It is quicker than he expects. Silence. Pompeii is no more.
Upstairs in Gaius room, someone holds Gaius’s hand. They wear a ring bearing the imperial crest. There is a buzzing, hum growing in intensity. Gaius’s eyes open wide, his pupils absurdly dilated.
“Now, you will do as I say,” commands the visitor.
Gaius sits up and tears out the oxygen tube away from his face. Beeping bio-monitors fill the foreboding room.
Alerted, the Praetorian guards rush in to check on Gaius. To their astonishment, Gaius is gone. They look in the bathroom and under the bed only to find nothing! A strong breeze lifts the curtains and it is only then they see the open window. Clamoring over to it and looking down in hope and dread, there is no sign of Gaius. The guards realize the trouble they are in: it will cost them their ranks. They lean back into the window, failing to notice the window next door. The curtain flutters in the breeze as a naked leg disappears inside the dark.
Gaius stands in the corner in his hospital gown gazing wide-eyed. Outside he hears the commotion as doctors and other personnel rush to his room. His frantic mother is shouting obscenities at the blundering guards. “Where is my son? Find him now!” Gaius listens in the dark. The voice of his visitor returns and a strange figure appears to loom in the shadows. As before at his bedside, the hand stroking Gaius’s hair was an illusion or dream. He is being manipulated by some unseen force.
Sneaking to the door, he cracks it open and peers out. Everyone has converged in the other room. A nurse stands in the hall on the phone with her back to him. Looking to the other side of the hall, he sees an exit sign over door to the stairwell. With security focused on the possibility he has somehow fallen, he moves with catlike stealth across to the stairway. Down the steps he runs, the alarm klaxon sounding, sending the hospital into lockdown. He only has moments before he is trapped inside. Jumping down the flights with almost superhuman speed, he makes it to the garage level. Bolting through the doorway he slams into a guard who tries to stop him. Gaius is too quick and grabs the man’s neck and snaps it. The lifeless body crumples to the floor. After dragging the body out of sight, Gaius tears away his hospital gown and dons the guard’s uniform. Wild-eyed and sweating, the buzzing sound from his room is getting louder in his head, driving him on for some unknown purpose. It settles to a low hum and he calms down and collects himself.
Checking around the corner the coast is clear but the gate is coming down fast on the entrance ramp. Again he hops up and dashes headlong for the closing metal fence. He slides under it just in time.